Fringe Box



The Dragon Says: Key Questions Ignored in the Unsavoury Affair of the Savills Letter

Published on: 19 Oct, 2019
Updated on: 26 Jun, 2020

Guildford voted overwhelmingly for political change in May. A major one. Specifically pledged by two of the parties in their election manifestos, was real openness by our borough council.

Those two parties are now the largest, most powerful council groups.

Of course, such openness should not need to be promised: it is not an option. That particular Nolan principle is clear: “Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.”

Some of us, perhaps more cynical about political promises, thought we would believe it when we saw it. Sadly, we were right. We haven’t seen it.

Last week, Guildford council reported no wrongdoing about a letter drafted by Savills, the agents of developer Wisley Property Investment Limited (WPIL), being presented as a letter of official support, signed by the outgoing leader of Surrey County Council.

Had real openness prevailed in the non-lamented era of Cllr Paul Spooner’s Conservative-dominated council, and had the real origin of the letter been made clear at the time, such twaddle would have been laughed out of the chamber.

The truth about the letter, drafted by Savills and passed by GBC’s Planning Department to Cllr Spooner and his then deputy, Matt Furniss, to be sent to Surrey County Council, was revealed only through a Freedom of Information request.

Cllr Spooner has denied he nor his deputy knew of the letter’s origin. But the head of Planning was forthright in admitting she had collaborated with Savills.

Tracey Coleman said: “In order to submit the bid and as required by the government, the Council worked collaboratively with relevant stakeholders; Surrey County Council and Wisley Property Investments Ltd.

“The Council and Savills (on behalf of Wisley Property Investments) worked together to agree and produce a draft text for supporting a garden village, for onward use by stakeholders.”

So the question was, did that council, now in the full knowledge of the letter’s origin, believe she had acted properly? Strangely, given Ms Coleman’s righteous tone, Cllr Spooner said he and Cllr Furniss knew nothing of Savills’ involvement in the letter.

After the FoI revelation, Cllr Spooner’s council claimed they had been totally open about the letter, a statement just as ludicrously transparent as it was absurd.

After the May election, the new regime that had pledged transparency ordered an investigation, raising hopes those responsible were to be held accountable. But GBC has a sorry track record of finding itself innocent.

Remember the disgracefully inept investigation into Monika Juneja? She was found to have done no wrong before a police investigation resulted in a conviction at the Old Bailey.

Even after the conviction, GBC found it impossible to accept they could have done any better although they had been given a clear steer from the chair of the Bar Standards Board. Their claim that the problem was the lack of police powers was as pathetic as it was inaccurate.

Remember how the council let Cllr Marsha Moseley off the hook after she derisively described the public gallery at a GBC Planning Committee meeting as a “bloody rabble”?

An independent investigation, costing thousands of our taxpayer pounds, decided she should make a public apology. But a secret meeting of councillors concluded an emailed apology (which was less than fulsome), and only to the complainants, would suffice, Some did not accept such an apology but nothing happened.

Remember the insistence of the need for confidentiality about the way the housing quota was calculated for the Local Plan in the face of all protest and criticism?

Remember that the council has never apologised for an earlier collaboration with WPIL when a previous Planning Director advised them how to skew consultation results by not including the views of local people, those who lived closest to the proposed site?

And now with this latest example “…as far as the council is concerned the matter is closed”. So said Council Leader Caroline Reeves (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas) about an abbreviated report of the council investigation into the affair of the Savills letter.

Without sight of the full investigation conclusions, to judge just how short of the necessary standard the probe was is difficult but the published summary alone left major questions unanswered:

Were Cllrs Spooner and Furniss spoken to and did the evidence confirm they had not been told of the letter’s origin? If so, to publish such a conclusion would be fair play for them.

Of course, if that is true, a more serious question is raised about why they were not informed.

Then there is the issue of any payment to WPIL and/or Savills for such a letter. Almost incredibly, GBC said they could not tell if a payment was made. If that is true, the situation looks even worse.

The investigation concludes that, on the balance of the evidence, Savills wrote the letter on a pro bono basis. Really? Why would they do that? For the good of whom? “Pro bono” translates as “for the public good”. What good benefited the public here?

Perhaps the question that drives to the heart of the matter really is, should the council collaborate with property developers whose prime motivation is profit and who will be seeking planning permission from the same council?

The Dragon deeply believes “collaboration” should be with the people of our borough. To have adopted the controversial Local Plan a week before the election might have been legal but the election result showed it has no mandate.

We want our council and our Planning Department to be on our side. Not the side of a developer whose company is registered in the Cayman Islands and whose investors remain anonymous.

But there are some in our Planning Department who seem to feel they are on the same side as the developers, fighting a Nimby population who don’t or can’t understand the issues?

Well, we do understand. We understand very clearly. What’s at stake is the character of our borough. And what else is at stake is the character of our council and the way our councillors, supposedly representing our best interests, conduct themselves.

We need our council to truly abide by the Nolan Principles, all seven of them, and honestly admit when they get things wrong.

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Responses to The Dragon Says: Key Questions Ignored in the Unsavoury Affair of the Savills Letter

  1. A Atkinson Reply

    October 19, 2019 at 10:49 am

    And surely not appropriate to use a former Guildford council employee and Guildford resident to be the independent investigator, if that is the case?

  2. Wayne Smith Reply

    October 19, 2019 at 9:05 pm

    Another excellent summation by The Guildford Dragon into this unsavoury business. The conclusion of “naive oversight” put forward by the independent investigator is laughable. Along with the many unanswered questions raised by Cllr Colin Cross in his letter How can Council Leader Caroline Reeves seriously consider this matter closed and how can the Guildford public have confidence in her administration?

    The electorate voted for change at the last local elections and so far there’s little sign of it. Is the problem that the Lib Dems believe we voted to have them in power and that’s job done? They would do well to remember that if R4GV had been able to field a couple of more candidates, they would in all likelihood now have overall control of GBC instead of just a couple of positions on the Executive.

  3. Julian Cranwell Reply

    October 21, 2019 at 10:08 am

    This leadership has flouted the Nolan principles over so many matters. This is merely the latest, after the disgraceful treatment, and ousting from the Executive, of Cllr Susan Parker.

    So much for their much-vaunted return to transparency and openness, so lacking in the previous regime.
    We’d hoped for better from this administration.

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